Safety First: A New Mexico Middle School Safeguards Students by Diffusing Clique Rivalries

by Mimi Mayer
Published in SEDL Letter Volume VIII, Number 2, August 1995, School Safety


Julian and T.Z. and Daniel all explained about the "gangsters."

It was the older guys who first tried recruiting kids from Memorial Middle School into the East Side Locals or Los Hermanos. What was the harm? It wasn't like LH or the East Siders were dangerous or anything. They were partying gangs, different from the hardcore gangsters 100 miles away in Albuquerque. Besides, way up in northern New Mexico, in a dinky town like Las Vegas, what else was there to do? Hang out at the local bird sanctuary?

And anyway, everything was cool with Los Hermanos-as long as the East Siders remembered that LH ran Memorial Middle School. And the ESLs could kick back pretty good about a lot of stuff-until one of those LHers dissed an East Side homeboy. When that happened, Los Hermanos would have to pay. That's it. They'd pay...

Carmen Holguin, principal of Memorial Middle School in Las Vegas, New Mexico, instituted two unique school safety programs that quelled potentially dangerous student rivalries before serious violence occurred.

The creation of safe schools, free of violence and conducive to learning, numbers among the national education goals-an ideal promulgated by two presidents, endorsed by congressional members from both sides of the aisle, and promoted by governors from all 50 states. While the Centers for Disease Control gives violence prevention plans to community activists, the National Association of State Boards of Education issues recommendations that schools adopt conflict resolution and character education curricula.

But gang and clique rivalries can bring violence to campuses, nullifying school administrators' efforts to make schools safe. Even when rivalries remain as implied threats rather than tangible realities, they can still undermine the educational mission that underpins every school.

What methods safeguard students? How can rivalries be contained? Carmen Holguin, principal of Memorial Middle School in Las Vegas, New Mexico, instituted two unique school safety programs that quelled potentially dangerous student rivalries before serious violence occurred.

A SEDL research site, Memorial is better known for its pilot program combining middle school education with a schools-within-a-school structure called the Family Plan. But other Memorial programs are noteworthy. The school's gang intervention plan, for instance, diluted a menace while teaching a small but influential band of at-risk eighth graders lessons in diplomacy, compromise, trust, self-esteem, leadership, and, incidentally, English composition. More recently, Memorial's use of weekly midmorning basketball games showed a new generation of gang members and their rivals, the school athletes, that sports contests could advance into mutual regard. Memorial's promising practices may help other educators create and maintain order on their campuses while providing high-quality instruction to the students in their care.

Ground Rules Help Quell Violence

Gang rivalry confronted Carmen Holguin, Memorial Middle School's principal, in the spring of 1992. Of course, Memorial had experienced the usual difficulties of middle schools: truancy, occasional fights, cussouts, spats over boyfriends or girlfriends, the feelings and reputations bruised by rumor or gossip. Meriting additional attention were a handful of students whose transfer records named parole officers or case workers with the New Mexico Department of Social Services. Some of those kids openly defied the set of strict rules and behavioral expectations that Holguin imposed. An even smaller group of special education students had arrived at Memorial from throughout the town and the surrounding districts, the students' behavior tightly constrained by contracts drafted by Holguin and signed by the students and their parents or guardians.

But the gang problems-they felt different. They introduced a tension to the school unlike any that guidance counselor Cip Chavez had experienced in 20 years of service at Memorial.

"We were having a lot of conflict, a lot of posturing, a lot of verbal conflicts. I sensed that we were on the verge of some major violence at our school," Chavez said.

Rather than ignoring the gangs or turning matters over to the police or juvenile authorities, Holguin and her staff intervened. At that time, Chavez recalled an incident in 1985 in which Albuquerque gang members wrote a peace treaty to end their war.

Assisted by counselors, those gang members met, negotiated terms, and crafted a truce themselves. A similar process might alleviate Memorial's tensions, Chavez suggested, even if its only result was to stake out the middle school campus as neutral ground.

Memorial's gang problems were-and are-far less grim than other schools'. Most of Memorial's gang members were "wanna-bes" only, Holguin said. They were kids imitating fashionable images absorbed from popular culture. The school had escaped lethal violence. There had been many fistfights, and a knife flashed once at a dance, but Holguin had yet to confiscate a gun. The facilities improvement budget went to renovating classrooms or erasing graffiti, not to metal detectors.

Plus, when she began to tackle the battling gangs, Holguin had a decided advantage: she knew what went on in her school. The schools-within-a-school arrangement of the Family Plan allowed Holguin and her faculty to monitor Memorial students fairly closely. Almost every student enjoyed a relationship with at least one adult on staff.

Which, in fact, turned off some students, said Holguin. "One of the things the kids don't like is that we know too much about them," she said. "We'll call kids in and say, 'We heard this is going on.' We'll tell them, 'If A happens, B will be the consequence.'"

Further, Holguin had several discipline policies in place, giving consistency to her contacts with disorderly students. She upholds these policies today. Leading the list was a "zero tolerance" rule for violent outbursts. Automatic expulsion for one year faced any student caught carrying a firearm. Holguin also applied legal restraints, filing charges when a student broke another's nose in a fistfight and routinely prosecuting student perpetrators of criminal vandalism or assault. Pushing matches and verbal confrontations were penalized with penalties of three- to ten-day suspensions, in-school detentions, or chores such as trash or cafeteria detail. Parents or guardians were always notified immediately after an incident.

Nonetheless, Holguin allowed herself the latitude to assess each incident and to dole out discipline based on the circumstances of each case. So it was no surprise that she agreed when Chavez proposal treaty-making as a solution to gang rivalries. Perhaps by writing a treaty, students would learn their actions-good or bad-had consequences-good or bad. Holguin was also guided by a conviction: middle school is the last chance to redeem some troubled students; high school is just too late.

Gang Leaders Promote the Peace

When Holguin intervened, gang members had been baiting each other, their fights outside of school becoming more frequent and vicious. Whenever an East Sider struck a Los Hermanos member, the LHers retaliated, and vice versa. Escalating violence had enmeshed a widening circle of youths.

Into this situation stepped Chavez. He first attempted to penetrate the cultures and structures of Los Hermanos and the East Side Locals. One by one, he called gang members into the counseling office, probing casually, asking about gang homeboys and beliefs. He learned the gang members were "very turf-minded" and prized respect. He also realized gang leaders wielded clout that he could use to fashion a truce-and without their support, peacemaking attempts would fail.

Chavez brought realistic expectations and specific objectives to the situation. He never aimed to wipe out the gangs; that would have been beyond his scope. Instead, he decided to be satisfied if he could prevent gang members from staging their conflicts at school. Chavez understood that some of the boys were adrift, that belonging to their gang gave them a connection to community otherwise missing from their lives. So Chavez never asked the gangsters to abandon their homeboys, although he supported those who walked away later. He acknowledged the youths' positive attitudes, their pride in neighborhood and family, their loyalty to friends. Nonetheless, when counseling the boys, Chavez emphasized the negative consequences of the rivalry, inviting gang members to choose a course of action themselves.

One by one, Chavez and Jackie Alarid, the other Memorial guidance counselor, persuaded six gang leaders to meet their rivals and negotiate a truce. East Side Locals leader T. Z. Solis, now 16, said Alarid convinced him to make peace, "because no one would mess with me any more. I wouldn't have thought about how it would be better for me. They gave me the information that the treaty could be useful to me."

How useful became apparent during the four weeks that gang leaders drafted and refined the treaty in informal writing sessions led by Chavez. The boys wrote about gang life, codes of honor, and the rivalry and how they felt about it. By eliminating restrictions on subject matter or language, Chavez demonstrated he would not judge the boys. In return, the gang leaders grew to trust him. They wrote freely, and their compositions caused them to examine their actions and the repercussions of their actions.

Slowly, the gang leaders worked out their agreement. They presented the terms to their homeboys for approval and modification, returning to the treaty table with changes. The leisurely process led most of the gang members to consensus while promoting an individual sense of ownership in the treaty and pride in their accomplishment.

Los Hermanos leader Daniel Salazar, now 16, said it was hard to persuade the homeboys in his gang to initiate the treaty. Antagonism was high and memory of harassment long. "We were always at each other's necks in the hallways," he said. Intergang rivalry was so intense, Salazar added, "there was one of the homeboys who just couldn't sign the paper." He concentrated on other LHers.

Nonetheless, 26 boys altogether signed their "Peace Out," as they called their agreement. They agreed to follow ten rules of conduct on the Memorial campus, as written in the treaty:

  1. No gang signs (use of hand signals)
  2. No ranking in at school (recruiting and initiating new members)
  3. No mad-dogging (exchanging intimidating stares and threatening postures)
  4. If a fight breaks out, keep it 1 on 1
  5. Don't talk smack (insult or incite someone to rage)
  6. Donx't involve innocent people
  7. Don't involve familia
  8. No fighting at school
  9. No vandalism, no plaks (marking gang turf with graffiti)
  10. Give respect, earn respect
East Side Locals leader Julian Benold, 16, noted that having the treaty in writing gave it gravity and made it harder to challenge or betray afterward. "It's there on paper and it can't be changed. People can't say later it was different," he explained.

And the treaty worked. There were no gang-related incidents at the middle school for the next three months, until the 1992-93 school year was winding down. Even then, a fight at a school choir concert was instigated by gang members from another school, Memorial's cross-town rival, Holguin said.

The relative peace extended into the following school year as well. During that time, Los Hermanos disbanded, virtually canceling out the gang-to-gang rivalry. But in May 1994, Holguin reported that, despite minor episodes of graffiti or gang dress, "gang activity was almost nonexistent" at Memorial.

Today, Chavez voices admiration for the youths who put aside their hostilities to bring peace to their school and safety to themselves, especially the six gang leaders. He's convinced the boys kept the truce because the plan was their own and they had a stake in its success.

"It was like they assumed the role of the caretakers. They went against the grain of all their philosophy," he said. "They were actually willing to sit down with the rival gang and talk peace. Here was an opportunity for them to do something positive!

"I got criticized by some of my own colleagues," Chavez continued. "They were saying that I catered to the gangsters. Yet when I see the discipline and righteousness of what these boys did, I say, 'Hey! That means something.'"

Sports Rivalries Neutralize Clique Feuds

The 1994-95 school year was uneventful until November. Then, about 30 Memorial students got into the dogpile on the grass outside the gym.

As Eli Ortiz, 14, told it, some of his fellow gang members and some of their rivals, the school athletes, were hanging out during lunch break when a gangster "started talking smart. And that was it." One boy was punched to the ground. Two more piled on top of him. A couple more leaped on them, creating a heap of bellowing boys, slugging it out.

Teachers broke up the dogpile and hustled the agitated students into a school commons. Holguin quickly understood the situation. She had another group rivalry on her hands. This time, however, the opponents weren't competing gangs. It was "the gangsters against the jocks," in the words of Michael Garduño, 14, a leading school athlete.

Holguin was in a dilemma. How should she discipline the boys? Suspend all 30 students for fighting? That wouldn't end the rivalry; it might even exacerbate it. The problem called for a smarter solution-perhaps one suggested by the students themselves. In discussions held between the rival cliques and led by Chavez and Alarid, the kids had made lists of their similarities and differences. Jock or gangster, the boys shared their interests in two topics: girls and sports in general-and girls and basketball in particular. Why not play ball with the students, Holguin decided.

Memorial's weekly basketball program began a week later. Twenty kids, ten on the Gangsters squad and ten on the Jocks team, filed into the gym.

The first basketball game almost became the last after a Gangster fouled a Jock. When a referee reprimanded the Gangster, he hurled a ball at an opponent. All 20 players from throughout the gym and the bench streamed to center court, pushing and shouting.

As usual, Holguin responded to the incident instantly. She was sufficiently angry to consider halting the program altogether. Yet she mulled over the matter, ultimately choosing to suspend only the boy who incited the court fight. She also told the Jock and Gangster captains that the fight nearly killed the program. But, Holguin continued, the games might continue if all the players followed certain guidelines.

The boys complied. Each Monday, team captains presented Chavez with a roster of five students-and only five students-who would play in Wednesday morning's game. Once the roster was submitted, no variations were allowed. Holguin had to approve every player. If the student was absent or if he didn't pass the principal's muster, his team was short a player.

Holguin added teeth to the restrictions: she defined play as a privilege available only to students with spotless behavior during the previous week. If a boy racked up one single discipline referral, he was automatically disqualified. This condition helped Holguin undercut any student perceptions that outlaw behavior was "cool" or remotely tolerable to school administrators. It also transformed peer pressure into a disciplinary tool. Team captains were nudged into drafting players who stayed out of trouble, attended school faithfully, and delivered on the court. Playing basketball for one class period became the palpable reward for good conduct during the rest of the week.

Since games were scheduled during the mandatory bilingual education class period, students were to speak Spanish on the court. Rough play and profanity were ¡Prohibido! Players were also required to attend pre- or post-game talks where Chavez reviewed teamwork along with strategies for establishing positive relationships and conflict resolution methods.

Even though they were closed to spectators, the games became the talk of Memorial Middle School. Basketball chatter filled Wednesday afternoons. Final scores were announced over the school loudspeakers among assembly announcements and club meeting dates. Naturally, participation became a status symbol. Getting out of class to play ball was great! Plus, the Gangsters gloried in the attention that had always been the exclusive domain of the Jocks.

It mattered little to the Gangsters or to the Jocks that the athletes won almost every game. Everyone was having fun. They'd tear onto the court, tense and eager to beat their rivals. By game's end, the guys were just playing hoop. About midseason 1995, the teams started mixing it up, with some Jocks and some Gangsters on each team-an arrangement that placed the teams on more equal athletic footing. Both Jock and Gangster players approved the change.

But Jocks and Gangsters returned to their home teams for the final game of the season. This time, the entire school perched on bleachers in Memorial's gym, cheering at each play. Although the Gangsters took an early lead, the Jocks took the game, 56-36. "They had better lungs than us," Gangster cocaptain Ortiz graciously remarked of his opponents.

Were the games successful? Did they dissolve intergroup rivalry? The physicality of the play provided a healthy outlet for group tensions. Weekly exposure helped the students become better acquainted. But claiming basketball transmuted angry enemies into bosom pals would be an exaggeration. It would be more truthful to say that gangster-jock antagonism had changed into cordial interactions between the groups.

"As soon as you get out there, the game is really heated. By the end, you're real tired, and you're just playing basketball," said Jock cocaptain Michael Garduño.

"Before, when we'd walk by each other, we'd push and mad-dog and talk smack. Now, there's nothing like that going on," Gangster cocaptain Eli Ortiz said.

"It made our school better since November," added Jock cocaptain Ronnie Flores. "We learned to deal with one another. In the hall, we respect each other."

And Principal Carmen Holguin's assessment? "I think it worked real well because they policed themselves," she said. "It was a big deal for them to be able to go to the gym. They were taking care of business, and it was a real honor for them to be able to say, 'We're taking care of business.' They'd proven themselves."

As with the treaty, the boys themselves were responsible for making the games a success. The handful of students who had caused problems helped solve them. And every student at Memorial Middle School was the safer for it.

Note: The names of all students were changed for this article.

Next Article: Playing it Safe with School Safety Programs